Second City Detroit, the region’s premiere purveyor of improvisational social satire, is marking 10 years downtown with a new show, Ten. The two hours-plus of entertainment reprises past skits, a collection of faithfully re-enacted crowd-pleasers that could just as easily be an introduction to new fans.
And there is much to laugh at. The special premiere performance featured a video from opening night, 1993, in which Carmen Harlan interviews Atanas Ilitch. It’s morbidly fascinating to watch the younger Ilitch describe the club as he keeps glancing feverishly back at the elder Ilitch for papa’s approval. In an unintentionally hilarious moment, the elder Ilitch, who looks just miserable, as though he’s chewing broken glass, growls that he doesn’t laugh much. He looks every bit like a person who just spent $6.5 million.
And ever since that risky beginning, opening a multimillion-dollar entertainment venue in Detroit’s depopulated downtown, Second City Detroit has faced its share of challenges. As heir to the Second City name, it’s had some big shoes to fill. It has struggled to be seen as more than a comedy franchise of the Second City star factory that launched John Candy, Eugene Levy and Martin Short, to name a few. After 10 years, longevity is bestowing some rewards, and the troupe can boast of alumni who have officially “made it,” including Larry Joe Campbell, co-starring with Jim Belushi on ABC’s “According to Jim,” and Keegan-Michael Key, who will begin appearing on Fox’s “Mad TV” this winter.
The group has also tried to follow in the footsteps of Second City’s tradition of using “timely political, local and social issues” for laughs. Certainly, Chicago’s Second City was famous for drawing on the wealth of controversial local conflicts, and their players relished the opportunity to stun audiences with taboo topics.
And the news for Detroit social satirists should be good, since the Motor City is a fertile ground for regional conflicts ready to riff on. True to formula, the cast energetically pushes cultural hot-buttons to elicit laughter, ranging from sexism and racism to homicide and homosexuality. The players clearly have fun with it, seldom afraid to reach below the belt to garner an extra laugh.
But this is Detroit, not Chicago. In one sense, Second City Detroit is a long-standing, much-patronized smash hit, but it offers mixed results vis-a-vis Second City’s “rich comedy tradition.” After it opened in 1993, the theater was criticized for retooling pieces written for Chicago, and, though the Ilitches and the improvisers insisted that a local focus would develop, some critics harbored reservations that the group could tackle the job.
Far away from the bustle of Chicago, Second City Detroit is a mostly commuter company playing to a largely suburban audience, which makes for puzzling disconnects. It’s entertainment for those willing to shell out $15 to park their fuel-hogging SUV and then see rapacious consumerism skewered onstage. Like the parody of a Disney song in one skit, you have to know the brain-dead lyrics to some disposable Disney anthem in order to get the humor. And Second City sometimes plays to people who are gloatingly “part of the problem.” This gets in the way of robust social satire.
Even when skits do focus on Detroit’s salient issues — racism and segregation — it can come off a bit ham-handed. One skit about a white couple from Rochester Hills eating soul food downtown devolves into cringing melodrama disguised as edgy relevance. Good satire doesn’t give you that sinking feeling that you’re enduring something that’s supposed to be nourishing for your soul — because you should be laughing too hard to notice.
That said, though, the audience will find plenty worth laughing over. The Second City does a good job of creating a world where idiotic cops blast away at hapless “suspects,” where big business PR-flacks are childlike buffoons, or where idiotic teens with arrested development act out their sexual issues on a CPR doll. And when the troupe brings guests onstage the discomfort level borders on schadenfreude.
Oddly enough, the troupe is at its best when it leaves politics behind and combines incongruous situations with excellent lighting, sound and music. The cast is great at physical comedy, and the elastic faces and generous features of players like Suzan M. Gouine and Topher Owen makes for hilarious and adorable mugging that telegraphs humor directly to your funny bone. If nothing else, Ten showcases the dynamic energy of the cast to great effect, with rapid-fire role-switching, a finale of increasingly frenetic buzz-bits, and even a little stage combat. And despite the tame social content, many will find Ten an entertainment bargain.
See Second City’s Ten at 2301 Woodward Ave., Detroit. Tickets are $15 Wednesday-Thursday, $20 Friday-Saturday. For information, call 313-965-2222.Michael Jackman is a Detroit freelance writer. E-mail [email protected]